The bible begins with the creation of everything that exists (Genesis, chapter 1). How is this creating done? Does God overcome some primordial, recalcitrant demonic force? No, although such accounts are found in the book of psalms. No, in Genesis God creates simply by speaking: “God said ‘let there be light’, and there was light.” And so it proceeds for the first six days, with the creation of the humans on day six.
The creation of everything is accomplished simply through words. And the intriguing fact is that, among all that has been created, we humans are unique in having the same power of speech. I take this to mean that, among things, in having the ability to communicate with one another with words, we are enjoying a divine-like power. Of course, such power can be used both for good and ill, hence the teaching of St Paul, “do not use harmful words in speaking, only the kind that will build up” (Ephesians, 4;29). Also in the New Testament, from James 3, 8-9: “with our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and curse our neighbours, who are made in the likeness of God”. So clearly, our power of speech is an ambiguous one, able to produce words of beauty or abuse, words of encouragement or anxiety.
How might we communicate badly? We could try to pass the blame – just look at the shenanigans of Adam & Eve after the eating of the infamous fruit: neither is able to accept responsibility, but seeks a scapegoat (Adam blames Eve, she blames the serpent); we could deny any role in a crime, as Cain does, regarding his murder of his brother Abel; we might dissemble, and pretend that things are other than they actually are (aka “lying”); or we could simply exaggerate, and blow things out of all proportion. I’m sure there are other ways of not being truthful, but these examples are sufficient to apply to our experience over the past 18 months.
What kind of words have we been given during this time, from both public officials and the media? I grant that in March 2020 there was a panicky tone about the message we were getting from the government: a deadly virus was on the loose and serious moves had to be made. So rules were introduced that were simply an inconvenience to many, but impacted very seriously on others (urgent medical procedures postponed or cancelled, businesses ruined, even simple necessities like getting exercise were curtailed). In those early panic-ridden days, many thought the hardships were proportionate to the goal of stopping the virus in its tracks. But that was eighteen months ago and now the script is pretty much the same.
I think enormous damage has been done over the past 18 months to our ability to communicate meaningfully as a society, and even among individuals. This should hardly be a controversial statement, but my sense is that the majority of our people are either satisfied with, or resigned to, the quality of public discussion in Ireland (and elsewhere) – a quality which I deem to be bordering on the illiterate. What I mean is the whole lack of discussion and debate on how life has been, and continues to be, lived in Ireland during the Covid-19 “pandemic”.
Simply said, what we have been subject to for the past 18 months has been a series of unexplained diktats, mandates and pronouncements; a series of pieces of legislation, often changing precipitously, with a panoply of vague, ill-defined “consequences” if these orders weren’t obeyed. And all “explained” with the same, dreary refrains, given out by our unelected health officials: “we need to stop the virus”, “flatten the curve”, “curb the new variant”, pronounced ad nauseum. And the “data” supporting such draconian measures as shutting down large swathes of the economy, stopping education for months, etc., was the equally predictable “rise in number of cases”, the presence of “asymptomatic carriers”, numbers being hospitalized, etc. Such “statistics” made little sense as to who was actually suffering from some novel virus (as distinct, say, from having the ‘flu), but when blindly parroted by whatever media source or HSE or NPHET spokesperson, and repeated daily, served to perpetuate the fear and worry of those who had come to trust every such pronouncement. This is not what I would consider good quality communication, not a good example of our (God-given) ability to speak.
Yet it was not simply the threadbare nature of the official storyline that invited question or doubt. No, an equally sinister element of the past 18 months here and elsewhere, and showing no signs of abating, has been the rejection of almost all questioning and debate: we are to accept the official version, no matter what! As we have seen, dissenting or even questioning voices have been silenced, some have lost their jobs, some have faced physical threats. How can this be called “an honest debate”?
A book comes to mind: “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom (1987), though now the diagnosis extends across the Atlantic, if not to the entire globe. It’s as if people’s minds have been closed and they then open themselves to whatever the “powers that be” decide: wear a mask for now, travel only 5 miles from your home, take the vaccine. No question, not even curiosity, just go with the flow; I consider this to be extremely worrying. The government and HSE/NPHET propaganda machine has been so sleekly run, with what seems to be a bottomless budget that, at this stage (July 2021), people are willingly getting injected into their bodies substances of unknown provenance (people don’t know what they contain), and even more ominously, have no idea of what the medium- or long-term consequences may be – and still almost zero debate.
Even apart from the very poor level of discussion and honest debate in the public sphere during the past 18 months, the effort to enter into personal discussion has almost always been a fruitless exercise: minds have already been made up; anyone who questions either the government or the media is in denial or inhabiting a lunatic fringe. But is this so? I have to admit that, as a paid-up member of the clergy, I am now almost lapsed as regards attendance at Mass, for reasons which I outlined in an earlier article: I consider the churches to be desecrated due to the persistence of noxious plastics everywhere, telling us where to go, what to do; the atmosphere is one of “control”, compliance etc. Yet who knows, I may be wrong, and these might be sensible measures aimed at combatting a deadly pathogen scouring the land for its latest victim. But then I see the priest going from the sacristy to the altar, in a large church with a handful of churchgoers present, and he has half his face covered; removing the mask to begin the celebration, he then sits while the readings are proclaimed; he sits a long way from the nearest person, yet the mask goes back up! I mean, is this not behaviour approaching the paranoid? When I ask about this behaviour, the answer is simply “it’s what’s expected now, it’s the done thing, to keep everyone safe”. Again, not an answer that is in any way impressive to me; in fact, profoundly disappointing.
Therefore, whether at the societal level or at the personal, it seems that the words of St. Paul have fallen on deaf ears: “do not use harmful words in talking, use only helpful ones”.
If there is any silver lining to this exceptionally dark cloud about poor communication, it is this: in a time of crisis like ours, you may discover the true nature of people, their true character. Those who question the mainstream narrative may not have all the answers, they certainly won’t have much access to power or influence, but you can sense their integrity, their quest for the truth. And those supporting the one-sided, no-room-for-question agenda: their character also becomes clear.
Colm Meaney was a missionary priest in the Philippines since 1991. He is back in Ireland for the present